University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer on Freedom of Expression in Academia

Head of School John Palfrey and Robert Zimmer discussed freedom of expression on campuses.

The University of Chicago (UChicago) prides itself on an institutional commitment to “free and open inquiry on all matters,” as stated on its website. Robert Zimmer, President of UChicago, joined Head of School John Palfrey          P’21 to discuss this commitment to freedom of expression in academic institutions.

The talk took place on October 25, in Cochran Chapel.

Zimmer explained how education is responsible for more than just the sharing of information. Education, according to Zimmer, should provide students with the experiences necessary to developing and practicing “intellectual skills.”

“People who graduate from the university do things across the full spectrum of human endeavor, so what is the kind of education that does that? It’s way more than information transmission. Information transmission is really a small part of what an education like this involves. What it really involves is a set of intellectual skills, a set of habits of mind, of ways of thought that enable you to confront complexity,” said Zimmer during the talk.

Matthew Cline ’19 said he appreciated Zimmer’s commitment to educating students not only to be informed, but to be equipped with the mental habits essential to thriving in the world.

“I asked a question about how an academic institution focuses on facilitating qualities other than intellectual ones in students, like empathy and interpersonal sensibility and emotional sensitivity. I was proud to see him acknowledge the complications that that question brings with it and not shy away from the fact that UChicago has other duties than just making smart kids,” said Cline.

According to Zimmer, UChicago has a history of promoting free speech. The institute has also recently reaffirmed this position in response to other colleges disinviting controversial speakers, an act that UChicago does not support.

“Everybody on our campus is encouraged, as a given right, to be able to speak, invite, listen, argue, protest. But what you do not have the right to do, and what the university will not do, is disinvite somebody or shut somebody down or prevent them from speaking because you or they, whoever, doesn’t want to hear them. Protest, for example, is an extremely valid and embraced form of expression, as long as it isn’t disruptive to take away somebody else’s right to speak and somebody’s right to listen,” said Zimmer.

Emma Kaplon ’21 said her main concern was how UChicago might react to hate speech, language that attacks another person on the basis of personal identities such as race, gender, and sexuality. She wondered whether such speech would be tolerated under the university’s commitment to freedom of expression.

“My main question was how he suggests that the University of Chicago as an institution reacts in situations where there is a question between hate speech and free speech. He addressed homophobia, misogyny, and racism, and other discriminatory actions. Does the institution then take disciplinary action to the student? Where does the institution draw the line between hate speech and free speech?” said Kaplon.

In order to develop such skills, Zimmer mentioned the importance of intellectual rigor to refining one’s beliefs and assertions. Additionally, Zimmer explained that students have benefited from both challenging and facing challenges to their own ideas.

“It is here that free expression and open discourse and intellectual challenge come into play, because the way to develop those skills is exactly to be in this environment of intellectual challenge,” said Zimmer.

According to Zimmer, people should be able to handle the discomfort that may accompany free speech.

Zimmer said, “Being able to recognize and challenge your own assumptions and deal with the discomfort that comes with this is an extremely important skill in actually being able to accomplish things in a complex world.”

Lilia Cai-Hurteau, Instructor and Chair in Chinese and Japanese, agreed that people should be able to hold conversations, even when opinions or perspectives differ. Cai-Hurteau also said, however, that these conversations must consider power dynamics, especially those rooted in historical and institutional discrimination.

“I absolutely agree people should be engaging in intellectual discourse with people who they disagree with. But, we also have to be able to talk about power openly when we are having these kinds of discussions and not be colorblind or blind to any form of systemic oppression that marginalized groups of people have experienced in this country,” said Cai-Hurteau.